LOS ANGELES — Maybe it’s in the Utes’ heads.
Or in USC’s hands.
Either way, when it comes to Utah winning at USC, it’s a non-starter. The Utes' hopes of winning the Pac-12 South Division are fading fast. Utah had a 21-7 lead in the second half, after which USC went all California.
It out-glamoured the Utes.
The Trojans stopped Troy Williams from scrambling into the end zone on a two-point conversion try with 42 seconds left, for a 28-27 win at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum — a venerable building erected seven years after Utah’s last win here.
Yes, it has been 101 years.
In 2011, Utah missed a chance to tie the game on the last play at the Coliseum, only to have the kick blocked and returned for a touchdown. This time it was a goal-line tackle on a conversion try.
It’s fair to second-guess Utah’s decision to try winning on its last possession, rather than kick the PAT to tie. But considering the Utes failed to slow USC in the second half, it was the right move. The Utes aren’t great in red-zone touchdowns. They weren’t going to outgun the Trojans in overtime. Trusting their defense, instead of their offense, is still the choice.
USC outgained Utah 523 yards to 436. That was enough to overcome three Trojan fumbles. Even on a day with an awful start, USC found ways to drive for late touchdowns, thanks to quarterback Sam Darnold.
Utah can beat USC at home, but it hasn’t won in Los Angeles since the days of silent film. Moviemaking has changed, but Utah at USC?
Cue the reruns.
Playing for the tie and hoping for luck isn’t a good gamble in this town.
So with two conference losses — one against the favorite in the division — Utah’s biggest plans flat-lined. For a few minutes it looked like the Utes could steal into the murky night with a win. But Darnold took care of that.
Two touchdowns in 10 minutes changed everything, tying the score. Utah had USC with a third-and-10 at its own 7, but Darnold rushed 14 yards up the heart of the Ute defense for the first down. Minutes later, the Trojans took the lead for good, thanks to Ronald Jones II’s Flying Wallendas dive into the end zone.
In the second quarter, Utah scored on a throwback from Demari Simpkins to Williams. Not a bad philosophy. If you can’t throw a TD pass, catch one. But Williams followed later in the half with a 33-yard strike to, yes, Simpkins.
Despite his team being overmatched against the Trojans most years, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has never genuflected. It makes sense he didn’t on Saturday, especially since his team engineered a late comeback to beat the Trojans last year on a touchdown pass with 16 seconds remaining.
For all intents and purposes, Whittingham’s history with USC began in 2001. That year the Trojans had Carson Palmer, but the Utes had attitude. They had played USC just once since 1948 and hadn’t beaten the Trojans since 1916. On Christmas Day, the Utes ground out a 10-6 win in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Whittingham never met a brawl he didn’t like.
That holiday bowl game didn’t set the network ratings afire, but it did kindle an idea: What if Utah could beat the Trojans on a regular basis?
Having won two of the last three games, going into Saturday’s matchup, Whittingham was holding that thought.
But in the end, the Utes aren’t just playing the current Trojans. They’re playing Marcus Allen and O.J. Simpson and Mike Garrett and Reggie Bush and Traveler the white horse.
The game had a certain important feel — and not just because USC was involved. With Utah and Notre Dame coming up on consecutive weeks, a Los Angeles Times writer called it “the most important two-game stretch in USC’s season.”
The article went on to say the game “may very well determine the Pac-12 South division championship.”
Not only did it give USC a one-game lead over Utah in the division, but a tiebreaker. In 2015, Utah and USC tied for the South championship with 6-3 records, but the Trojans beat the Utes and won the tiebreaker.
Bad news for the Utes then.
Same news now.